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Mobtown Beat

Missing Property

When City Approved Permits For House At 2418 Fleet There Was No House To Work On

NOW YOU SEE IT . . . NOW YOU DON'T: (left to right) in July 2005, 2418 Fleet St. was just a facade; in January 2006, the BMZA approved an addition to the structure; by February 2006, a new house was under construction at the site.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 8/23/2006

The three-story rowhouse at 2418 Fleet St. in Canton, listed for sale at $629,000, does not appear remarkable in an area marked by ferocious redevelopment. Indeed, just four doors west a similar-looking house is under expansive renovation, complete with the same Cyclops-like third-story front window.

But 2418 Fleet is unusual because, under the city's building, planning, and zoning laws, it shouldn't be there at all.

And the people responsible for its construction are an unusual group as well, combining an apparently typical real-estate investor with Mayor Martin O'Malley's longtime campaign treasurer and a klatsch of contractors and professionals who have been convicted of at least five felonies, with more charges pending.

Critics of the city's building and zoning administration say huge homes are wedged in next to modest houses all over Canton, Fells Point, and Federal Hill, despite myriad regulations that appear to forbid it. The story of how 2418 Fleet St. came into being, then, is also the story of Baltimore's real-estate boom--both its power to transform city neighborhoods and its curious ability to mix the politically connected with criminals who break rules and make money, over the protests of stunned neighbors and under the nose of city officials.

The laws broken to build this house govern construction contracting, city building codes, and zoning. But this brand-new, still-unfinished home's hulking presence boils down to a seemingly simple question: How can the city approve an addition to a building that doesn't exist?

"Hah," laughs David Tanner, executive director of the city Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals. "I don't see how you could do that. If the building no longer exists, how can you put an addition on it?" He ponders the question for a second, perhaps not remembering that, one year ago, his board granted just such a request. "You could," he says, "get approval to replace it."

John B. Matheis, owner of 2418 Fleet, bought the dilapidated structure in early 2005 for $160,000. But Matheis did not ask for city approval to knock down the house and build it anew. Instead, he told the zoning administrator that he planned to add to the existing structure: a heavy, looming third story, plus a rooftop deck, plus a two-story addition in the rear, according to zoning documents.

Next-door neighbor Amanda Cavallo says Matheis "wasn't specific" about his plans when he dropped by last summer. "He said we're going to redo the house, bring it all the way to the back [of the lot]," she says. "It was a small house."

Cavallo was not opposed. The existing house "was very, very, very run-down," she says, with the "back of the house put together with tar and shingles."

Even so, there were problems with Matheis' proposed addition, the record indicates. City zoning ordinances don't allow for the expansion of any "non-conforming structure"--meaning any house that's less than 16 feet wide. This lot is only 13 feet, eight inches wide. The zoning code further restricts the size of additions, saying no home can cover more than 60 percent of a building lot. Matheis' proposal covers 87 percent. Zoning administrator Donald Small rejected the plans on those grounds. Calls to Small's office were referred to the city Department of Housing communications office, which cited its new policy of refusing to answer City Paper's queries except those submitted in writing under the Maryland Public Information Act. As of press time, a written request had not yielded a response from Housing.

In August 2005, Matheis appealed Small's rejection of his plan to the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals (BMZA), a five-member mayoral-appointed body, administered by Tanner, that has final say on matters relating to rooftop decks, additions, conversions of houses into businesses, and the like. But instead of making his own case to the board, Matheis engaged Martin F. Cadogan, an attorney with Baltimore law firm Brown and Sheehan. (Cadogan's relationship to Matheis and the property is not clear; state tax records show Matheis as the owner, but a building permit signed by Matheis lists Cadogan as the owner.)

Cadogan does occasional zoning appeals--he represented Little Havana co-owner Tim Whisted's effort to move his restaurant into an industrial zone, for instance--but he is better known in political circles as O'Malley's campaign treasurer, having overseen more than $10 million in donations to the current gubernatorial hopeful since 1999. Repeated messages left at Cadogan's office were unreturned before deadline.

The BMZA hearing on the 2418 Fleet "addition" was held Aug. 23, 2005. By then the house had been demolished. Charm City Builders and Excavation LLC began dismantling it in early June 2005.

"In the process of ripping down the house, when they took down their chimney they left a hole in my house and took down my fence," says Cavallo, an accountant who bought her renovated rowhouse with the help of her parents in 2003. Charm City Builders' workers did not repair the hole in her siding for six months, she says. The fence and brickwork over the shared sally port between the houses remain broken. "That pisses me off," she says.

Charm City Builders is not licensed by the Maryland Home Improvement Commission. One of its principals, Wyatt Heinlein, signed two permit applications for the project with different bogus license numbers, in apparent violation of state law.

Heinlein has been convicted twice for drunk driving and once for disorderly conduct. In 1999 he was charged criminally for being a spectator at a dogfight. The case was postponed indefinitely. The phone numbers Heinlein used on the construction permits have been disconnected, as were other previously listed numbers for him. A message left with his mother was not returned. James D. Cavasina, Heinlein's business partner, also could not be reached for comment.

By late July 2005, Heinlein had destroyed all but the Formstone-faced front of 2418 Fleet St. There were no floors, no roof, and no sides or back. A photo taken then shows that the facade had no windows and no door.

A neighbor and Deborah Tempera, a building and zoning activist, told the BMZA that the building was gone, but the board still granted Cadogan's request for an addition to the nonexistent house. The board claimed it made its decision "after . . . inspecting the premises," and found that 2418 Fleet is "unique due to its small lot size and the additions will provide much-needed living area for this small home."

The board did not inspect the premises. "That's a boilerplate statement," says Geoffrey Veale, a zoning appeals adviser who has helped citizens through the BMZA since the mid-1990s. He says the board looks at the paperwork--especially the site plans--and listens to the testimony to make its decisions.

He scoffs at the notion that the BMZA would give special consideration to a request from the mayor's campaign treasurer. "Two words," Veale says of Cadogan's status. "So what?"

Yet 2418 Fleet does appear to have gotten special consideration. In this case the board appears to have ignored both the law and evidence that Cadogan's application included false site plans. Drawings of the "addition" at 2418 Fleet by B4 Design and Consulting show a house with a first floor set about two feet higher than the original--five steps instead of the original one step. That means that the plans, dated June 8, 2005, depict an "existing" building that would not exist until more than six months later, after the original had already been cleared away.

Questions put in writing to B4 Design were not answered at press time. In a short phone conversation B4 co-owner Michael Coster berated a reporter for a previous story revealing engineer John Elder's extensive criminal record, which includes at least two felony convictions. "There's a lot of good in John Elder," he says. Elder is a former city engineer who was involved with multiple building collapses ("Collapse," Aug. 2).

Elder also engineered the 2418 Fleet project. A drawing, stamped with Elder's seal and dated Nov. 25, 2005, depicts an "existing 2 story house" that had been completely razed months before.

Elder says he never surveyed the site but relied on drawings from B4, which surveyed the property "in late May or early June" of 2005. As engineer, Elder says, his job was merely to make sure the plans conformed to building code and "structural accuracy."

"In defense of B4, I don't believe they would have gone back after the initial visit, unless someone told them it had changed," Elder says, although he acknowledges that B4's principals reside across the street and one block east of the house in question. Elder says he agrees that the owners should have told the BMZA that the "scope of work had changed." Had they done so, Elder says, "they probably would have had a positive appeal."

Matheis declined to to say why he did not do that. When introduced to a City Paper reporter touring his house with a real estate agent last week, Matheis became agitated. "This is very misleading," he said repeatedly. "I'm asking you to get off my property."

Matheis agreed to answer questions later, but at the appointed time canceled the interview, saying he was too busy with his full-time job in the insurance business.

The man whose company built 2418 Fleet St. says he has done a lot of work for Matheis. "I've worked for him plenty of times," says Jose Morales. "He's a big developer down there." Morales says he "never heard of" Cadogan.

Morales, whose A.B.R. Construction LLC is currently on the job at 234 S. Chester St. ("Building a Case," Mobtown Beat, Aug. 16), framed 2418 Fleet beginning in January under the name Masons Unlimited, which saw its state business charter revoked last October. Like A.B.R., Masons Unlimited (and Morales himself) is unlicensed by the Maryland Home Improvement Commission. Morales also faces criminal charges of contracting without a license, although that case, awaiting a jury trial since 2003, is arguably the least of his legal concerns.

Since 1993, police have booked Jose Joaquin Morales, born Sept. 24, 1975, on more than 50 criminal charges. The first arrest was for battery, three weeks after his 18th birthday and not prosecuted. Over the subsequent 12 years Morales racked up arrests on charges relating to theft, assault, discharging a firearm, drug dealing, vehicle theft, and arson. He has at least three felony convictions--the most recent a 2000 drug charge--and currently faces 10 counts relating to identity theft and fraud in Anne Arundel County. His trial date is Sept. 21.

Morales says his company worked on 2418 Fleet for about 45 days, bricking the front, building the frame and stairways. He confirms that the job was no addition. "When I got there," he says, "there was a hole in the ground."

Morales says that his company is licensed and that he has "never been arrested." He says he was born in 1971, but when asked to identify the man with the same name as his, born in 1975, whose criminal records check back to his Glen Burnie business address, Morales says that the house belongs to his father. "Could be my father, could be my son," he says of the mystery criminal.

In January, a Jose Morales donated $250 to O'Malley's campaign. Morales acknowledges the contribution but says he doesn't remember the occasion or the reason for it, adding he donates "a lot" to various politicians.

A check of campaign records finds no other political donations to Maryland state candidates by any Jose Morales.

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